Can Landlords Screen Renters by Income and Credit Score?

Business, Rights

Last month, a letter from a San Francisco landlord to his tenants went viral, triggering a pubic outcry over tenants’ rights. Tenants of the landlord’s rent-controlled complex reportedly received letters asking for proof of six-figure incomes and credit scores of at least 725. Such situations are becoming a problem in areas like San Francisco, where landlords are hoping to get rid of old tenants in favor of wealthier tech workers moving to the area.

In this case, the landlord’s request was an invasion of privacy. There are no legal requirements for tenants to provide income or credit information after moving in, and certain criteria is illegal to use when selecting tenants in the first place. As a tenant, awareness of your rights is crucial. Read on for tips to make sure you’re not getting the runaround from potential landlords.

What Landlords Can and Can’t Screen by

Under state and federal law, landlords may not discriminate against prospective tenants based on race, religion, color, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, or because a person is a veteran or a member of the armed forces, blind, hearing impaired, otherwise handicapped, or has children, or because of a person’s source of income. Discrimination would include refusing to rent, setting different rental terms, providing different services or facilities, stating falsely that an apartment is unavailable, and advertising or making any statement which indicates a preference based on race, religion, color, etc.

The “source of income” rules can be confusing. Landlords cannot refuse to rent to a person because that person receives any form of public assistance. But a landlord can refuse to rent to someone because, regardless of source, his or her income is not enough to be able to afford the rent.

Landlords can run a background and credit check as long as they let the potential renter know they are doing so.

Applicants’ Rights When Providing Personal Information

In Seattle, landlords owning five or more apartments are required to share potential tenants’ credit scores with them if their score is too low to qualify. Seattle landlords are also required to publish the rental criteria, making their requirements public knowledge (a specific credit score requirement, for instance).

State laws vary, but typically a landlord must provide the following information to you, in writing, (not just verbally) before screening:

  • What types of information the landlord will access
  • What information from the screening may result in your application being turned down
  • The name and address of the consumer reporting agency the landlord is utilizing
  • Your right to get a free copy of the consumer report if the landlord denies your application
  • Your right to dispute the accuracy of information in the consumer report

Landlords may charge a screening fee, but this shouldn’t necessarily exceed the actual cost of screening. Remember, all state laws are different, so a wise tenant-to-be should look up local laws before starting their housing search.

When Landlords Cross the Line

When your potential or current landlord asks for information they shouldn’t, you can report them to your state’s appropriate government agency or local tenants’ group, and/or take them to court. In some cases, finding a good attorney is your best bet for stopping renter discrimination.